Odyssey Marine Exploration to return €382m treasure

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A US court decision ordering the return of treasure salvaged from a 19th century Spanish warship could set a legal precedent.

Marine salvage company Odyssey Marine Exploration must now return 540,000 gold and silver coins worth $500 million (€382m) that were recovered from the seabed around the sunken Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes.

Jose Ignacio Wert and Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo – respectively ministers of Culture and Foreign Affairs – were delighted by Atlanta judge Mark Pizzo’s ruling they said last week.

“An exploration company can keep treasure belonging to another country at any time. What is important is that is a court has recognised

Approximate location of the galleon
Spain’s rights as owners of this wreck,” said Garcia-Margallo.

This concluded a long legal battle, the ministers said, but despite the apparently happy conclusion, two clouds remained on the horizon.

It was still possible for the US Supreme Court to accept a last-minute appeal from Odyssey and the return of the treasure could be suspended, warned Garcia-Margallo.

This was unlikely, he added, “but still possible.” The Spanish frigate, which sailed from Peru with a cargo of gold and silver coins, was sunk in the Atlantic off the Portuguese coast in October 1804.

They lay untouched for nearly 200 years but after Odyssey located and salvaged them they were secretly flown to Florida.

Odyssey co-founder Greg Stemm, left, and project manager Tom Dettweiler examining a coin recovered from the ‘Black Swan’ shipwreck [Photo credit: Odyssey Marine Exploration]
The Atlanta judge rejected Odyssey’s claims that the coins were scattered over such a wide area that it was impossible to determine from which wreck they originated.

The coins were minted in Peru and matched cargo manifests while cannons found at the wreck site were those of the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, said Mark Pizzo.

On Wednesday last week Pizzo ordered that the treasure – 600 barrels each weighing 25 kilos – should be returned to the Spanish government within 10 days.

If Odyssey does not appeal the coins should soon reach their Spanish destination, albeit two centuries late and aboard two Hercules military transport planes, not the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes.

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